When I was deciding where to go to graduate school I felt really stuck. I wasn’t even 100% sure I knew exactly what I wanted to study, so I wanted options. I wanted flexibility. But how could I ensure I was making the right choice so that after a long application process, then two years of hard work–and a lot of money!, I would end up where I wanted to be, with job prospects and on the path to a fulfilling career? This is a tough question for many prospective graduate students and it’s a challenge when deciding where to apply in the first place, and often even more so when those acceptances come rolling in and the final decision needs to be made. Here are some guiding questions to help you narrow down the options and make a decision that is right for you and your career path:
Which school offers the best chances of employment?
When you get down to it, the main reason you’re going to grad school after all is to get a great job afterwards and forward your career. I mean, sure learning is great, as is brushing up against key figures in the field who guest teach your courses, but ultimately you don’t want to shell out time and money if you’re not going to see results. Schools will list stats on their job placement rates, but the key here is to talk to alumni, particularly those in the specific field you hope to enter. Ask alumni questions like:
- How did you get your first post-grad school job?
- Did the HKS/SAIS/SIPA/etc. degree open doors for you?
- What support did career services give you?
You need to get a sense of how well the program does in actually setting students up for careers in your specific field. After talking to alumni of your top schools, do some internet snooping. Go to websites for organizations/companies you envision yourself working and read the staff bios. Where did their staff go to grad school? Not only does this tell you which programs prepared them for the job, but it also means once you graduate, you have in obvious “in” with these staff, as a cold email that starts out “As a fellow alumnus of…” has a much higher chance of a response.
Will this program prepare me for my field of interest?
Answering this takes a bit more of a deep dive into the school’s materials. Some public policy and international affairs schools aim to strike a balance between the practical and the theoretical, and they do so effectively to varying degrees. It’s a smart idea to be clear going into the program what base of knowledge you need to be successful in your field (what do you need to be able to speak intelligently about?) and what skills you’ll need to be marketable (statistics? evaluation? project planning? negotiation?) Make sure the school you’re planning to attend actually offers courses or other opportunities in those academic areas and practical applications. And if you’re not sure what those things are you need to be successful, don’t be afraid to do some informational interviews with current professionals in the field. Ask them what they gained from grad school that enables them to do their job (and get hired in the first place!).
Will I enjoy this program?
Of course you’re not entering grad school “for fun,” but let’s face it—if you’re happy in the program, you’re going to do better. You’re going to make more connections with fellow students and professors, you’ll do better in courses and you’ll be happier and more confident as you embark on your job search. You’ve probably caught on by now that this is my answer for everything, but…yep, reach out to alumni and current students. Find out about the student body and the student experience. Do students “work hard, play hard”?
- Do they fill their schedules with extracurricular student groups and lectures?
- How international is the student body?
- What is the average age of students?
All of these questions help you imagine yourself fitting into this crowd. Your peers will be one of your biggest assets when you graduate and beyond, connecting you to opportunities, or even hiring you, so you want it to be a group you’ll fit in with!
What internship/capstone project opportunities are available?
As far as getting a job, my biggest advice to current students is get experience—as much of it as you can. This is the time in your career when, as a grad student, you’re likely to be accepted as an intern or work on a capstone project for which you’re not truly qualified and would otherwise never be hired to do. But once you’ve done it, now it’s on your resume and you have the chance of being hired to do that in the future. Check out what opportunities are available through the program.
- Are all students required to do a capstone?
- What types of projects are available?
- Do students have time in their schedules to intern?
- Does the career services center connect them to exciting internships?
Admissions offices and school websites should also give you information about these offerings, but alumni are your surest bet to get the “inside scoop.”
How will I pay for it?
As much as we might want to disregard the high cost of graduate education, for most of us, that’s not really an option. Which school offered the most money? That’s an easy start. From there, however, you’ll want to reach out to current students and alumni of the program. Some programs may not offer generous funding options for the first year but do everything they can to ensure their students do not drop out in the second year. Some of these schools award every student who demonstrates need (broadly interpreted) and at least a basic level of aptitude based on first semester grades with fellowships and work study covering at least half of the second year tuition. But don’t count on this being the case. Do your research and the best way is to speak to alumni who know not only what they received in funding but what their friends got as well. Now… good luck with decision time!